I’m not even sure that I need to write this post because Paul the Octopus has predicted a Spanish victory. As far as I know, he hasn’t also broken down the match-ups. Don’t worry Paul, I’ll do that for you. It can be tough blogging with 8 arms, suction cups, and no opposable thumbs.
Not since Red and Orange fought over who would be first in the rainbow (red won that fight and will here too) have we seen an epic match between those two colors. La Furia Roja (the Red Fury) take on the Oranje (the Orange) on Sunday for the World Cup title. Spain and the Netherlands are almost universally recognized as the two best teams to never win a World Cup. One team loses that status on Sunday, while the other will carry that mantle for at least 4 more years. Both are dangerous sides and have been historic underachievers. Despite their collective, historic skill, neither team has had the success to match. The Dutch have contested two finals (1974 and 1978), have won 1 European championship (1988) and been close several other times. Both near misses for the Dutch involved playing the host country in the final. Both times they lost. South Africa has happily obliged the Dutch in not making the final, so at least they won’t have to face a team with the home field advantage on their side. Spain’s best showing at the World Cup, prior to this year, was way back in 1950 when they finished 4th. The Spanish have also won two European championships (1964 and 2008) and have been ranked 1st or 2nd for he better part of the last 2 years. While the match may not include Brazil, Italy, England or Argentina, this is a heavyweight fight.
Goalkeeper – This match-up is almost a no-contest. Iker Casillas is head-and-shoulders better than Maarten Stekelenburg. I know that many have been talking Stekelenburg up during the tournament, but I just don’t see it. He was shaky against Uruguay, letting in a Jabulani goal by Diego Forlán. Granted, Stekelenburg has made some great saves, but to call him the best keeper at the World Cup is certainly hyperbole. His time on the club level at Ajax would seem to confirm that he is a good keeper, but not of the same class as Casillas.
On the other side of the pitch, Casillas has rebounded nicely from early tournament drama. He looked distracted during the group stage, perhaps as a result of his girlfriend calling him out , or perhaps it was due to a long season backstopping Real Madrid. Whatever the reason, Casillas has rebounded to look like the man who earned the moniker St. Iker. I expect Casillas to perform up to his usual standards. If Stekelenburg can regain the form he showed earlier in the tournament, the Dutch will be in a good position. If plays like he did against Uruguay, the Dutch are in trouble. Advantage: Spain
Defense – This match-up again favors Spain. The Spanish fullbacks get forward better than Netherlands, especially Sergio Ramos, who was a monster in attack against Germany game. Joan Capdevila doesn’t get the same kind of press as Ramos, but he has done well on the left. The Dutch will have Gregory Van Der Wiel back and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst did unleash what might be the goal of the tournament (watch the highlights), but the Spanish fullbacks are still the class in this game. Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué are both better than the Dutch center back tandem of Joris Mathijsen and John Heitinga. Puyol was a beast in the Germany game, scoring the game winner in the 73rd minute. Pique has also been solid. The will have their hands full with the Dutch attack, but I also thought they would have difficulty with Germany and they shut down what had been a prolific German attack. Mathijsen and Heitinga are both good defenders, but I question their ability to consistently stop the Spanish attack. David Villa should find some room to run against the Dutch D, which is definitely not a good thing.
Midfield – This is where the game will take place. The match in the middle of the park is the marquee portion of the World Cup finals. The Dutch midfield will likely consist of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt, Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. I like the team better when Rafael Van der Vaart is on the pitch, but I suspect Bert van Marwijk will go with what has worked for the entire tournament (match against Uruguay not included due to De Jong’s suspension). The Spanish will have to stop Sneijder and Robben from making dangerous runs out of the midfield. Sneijder has been electric the entire tournament. He is tied for the Golden Boot with David Villa and doesn’t look like he is going to slow down. Robben has been excellent since his return from injury and provides the Dutch with the necessary width to attack the Spanish defense. Kuyt has done the dirty work in attack and has been underrated this tournament.
The Spanish will likely deploy Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets with David Silva and Cesc Fábregas off the bench. The Spanish are spoiled for choice in their lineup and having Fabregas on the bench as a super-sub is an ace in the hole for them. David Silva or Fabregas could start in the place of the ineffective Fernando Torres, or Vicente Del Bosque could go with Pedro up front as a compliment to Villa. I think the Spanish will need to attack down the wing in order to avoid the Van Bommel and De Jong. It will be interesting to see if Van Bommel and De Jong can disrupt the Spanish midfield with their hard tackles. It isn’t too had to imagine a hard tackle by one of the Dutch enforcers altering the game in their favor. Both teams hold the ball well, but Spain’s game is more predicated on possession and short passing than the Dutch. I hope that we will see the flowing soccer that has been a hallmark of the Dutch and Spanish sides in their past. Advantage: Push
Forwards – Based solely on this tournament, this would appear to be another no-contest. David Villa is tied for the Golden Boot, while Robin Van Persie has disappeared for long stretches. Van Persie’s disappearing act belies his skill, one need look no further than his campaign with Arsenal this year. In just 2o appearances, he scored 10 goals and had 8 assists! Not a bad ratio if you ask me.
Villa, of course, has been superlative at this World Cup and internationally for Spain. He has been prolific for La Furia Roja, making 64 appearances and scoring 43 goals. This past club season saw him score 28 goals and dish out 10 assists in 45 appearances for Valencia and led to a move to Barcelona.
Beyond the obvious starters, Spain has greater depth than the Dutch. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is not on par with Fernando Torres when he is playing his best. Right now, the argument could be made they are much closer (given Torres’ slump), though Huntelaar has seen only 49 total minutes of action in South Africa. Beyond Huntelaar, the Dutch don’t have any strikers on their roster, as Ryan Babel and Eljero Elia are wingers and generally play closer to the midfield. Neither has seen much playing time (Babel has not gotten into a game, and Elia has played a total of 89 minutes). As mentioned above, Pedro could also play a role in this game. He was dangerous against Spain and could come off the bench or start in place of Torres. Beyond Pedro, the Spanish have Fernando Llorente and Jesús Navas on the bench. Llorente is more of a striker, while Navas is a winger. As with their Dutch counterparts, neither has seen much time in South Africa. Llorente has played 32 minutes, while Navas has started one game (against Honduras) and played 29 minutes in another. Neither of Navas’ games have been since the group stage. Advantage: Spain
If Spain can keep possession the way they did against Germany and find Villa making runs through the Dutch defense Spain will win this game. If the Spanish allow the Dutch midfield space, especially Robben and Sneijder, Spain will be in trouble. Robben and Sneijder are creative enough to conjure moments of glory out of nowhere and the Spanish must be mindful. Ultimately, I think the Spanish will prevail in a close game. The top-to-bottom quality of the Spanish side will overwhelm the Dutch, despite the Dutch having a world-class midfield. Final score: Spain 2 – Netherlands 1.
I hope that Paul the Octopus approves of this post.